Study influences key policy

Research methods should be developed as part of the campaign to mitigate climate change impacts, maintains Darryn McEvoy.

Despite some lingering scientific uncertainties, concerns are mounting that climate change may be the biggest threat that we will have to face for years to come.

UK meteorological evidence shows that the 1990s witnessed the five warmest years on record. Scientists throughout the world have been documenting the various impacts of climate change in the form of glacial retreat, a rise in sea levels, the encroachment of deserts and the ever-growing economic costs associated with extreme weather events.

Since the introduction of the national climate change programme in 1994, policy has typically focused on ways to mitigate its effects, such as by cutting energy use and replacing fossil fuels with alternative forms of energy. However, there is growing recognition that we also need to prepare for and adapt to different climatic conditions in the future.

Our greenhouse gas emissions will influence the rate and scale of future change. The period up to 2050 is already determined by historical emissions as a result of inertia in the climate system. So the benefits of mitigation, even if successful, will only become evident in the second half of this century. We therefore need to plan for some degree of change.

The recent flooding of New Orleans, although an unusual and extreme event, highlights in the starkest terms the consequence of being poorly prepared for the impacts of climate events. The latest climate change scenarios produced as part of the UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) indicate that summers will become warmer over a longer season, with more frequent heatwaves and corresponding reductions in rainfall.

On the other hand, winter rainfall will increase with the likelihood of more intense storms in both winter and summer. Traditional images of snow-covered landscapes will become less common. These climatic changes will have significant implications for a variety of issues including flooding, water supply, soils, geohazards, biodiversity, urban heat islands and air quality.

Climate change will particularly affect our towns and cities. This is where the majority of people live and where the impacts will combine with other urban processes. For example, paving over residential gardens for car parking reduces the permeability of the urban system, causing increased run-off and exerting pressure on urban drainage systems.

Changing patterns of winter rainfall will further exacerbate this problem.

In some cases events may be relatively minor, such as a period of drought resulting in water restrictions. However, when important thresholds are breached there is potential for more serious repercussions, such as the heatwave of 2003 that killed many thousands of people across Europe. Planning for emergencies and long-term change is therefore critical.

Climate change will not just affect urban areas. It is also likely to reduce the environmental capacity of the landscapes that surround them.

In valuable but vulnerable locations such as the coastal zone and the uplands it is important that landscape frameworks such as national park and shoreline management plans anticipate the problems associated with climate change. Some adaptive response is already present in localised countryside management practice, but such tactical responses need to be embedded in an appropriate strategic framework.

Although incorporating climate risk into policy-making is still in its infancy, there are signs that it is being given a higher profile at strategic level. Last year the ODPM published guidance on the planning response to climate change (Planning, 15 October 2004, p1). DEFRA is in the process of developing an adaptation policy framework to provide a level of coherence to this evolving agenda.

Furthermore, the government now recognises that land-use planning has a key role to play in tackling both the positive and negative implications of climate change. In terms of delivering strategies, the context in England is being transformed by the shift towards regional spatial strategies (RSSs), updated arrangements for sub-regional planning and the move towards local development frameworks (LDFs). Under this reformed system, national policy highlights climate change as a material planning consideration.

The reforms have brought about a much broader concept of spatial planning in which RSSs, LDFs and community strategies are more explicitly linked to strategic visions. At a time of growing concern over the impacts of climate change, strategies operating at differing spatial scales offer possibilities for integrating climate measures into the planning process in the context of sustainable development and quality of life.

Reinforcing this, the tools used to assess strategies and plans now require consideration of climatic factors. Assessment criteria are likely to be strengthened in years to come. However, to be effective planning policy needs to be informed by the latest research and scientific understanding.

As in the policy arena, analysis of climate change impacts and adaptation is a relatively new area of research.

Since its inception in 1997, UKCIP has acted as an influential gatekeeper, bringing the research and policy communities together. It is currently responsible for co-ordinating two major research programmes. The first is the Building Knowledge for a Changing Climate initiative, which focuses on the built environment, infrastructure and utilities.

Using a case study approach, the research has produced methodologies for urban characterisation and risk screening at the conurbation scale combining climate-related hazard, exposure and vulnerability. It is also investigating issues of building integrity, human comfort and urban green space at the city and neighbourhood scales.

The second research programme is DEFRA's cross-regional climate change programme. This is a portfolio of regional and sectoral projects that aims to produce transferable results applicable to different regions of the UK. A pilot project on climate change and the visitor economy is analysing the interaction between climate change, visitor behaviour and environmental capacity in the North West.

The research focuses on four case studies: the uplands of the Lake District and the Peak District, the Sefton dunes coastal area of Merseyside and urban spaces in Manchester. Early findings suggest that there may be considerable cost implications attached to sustaining the quality of landscapes under a changing climate and that co-ordinated investment plans will be needed to maintain their integrity.

Ultimately, updated forms of governance may be needed to ensure effective planning and management and better engagement with key stakeholders will be essential to planning for climate change.

- Darryn McEvoy is manager of the Centre for Urban and Regional Ecology at the University of Manchester.

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